“Have you heard of brilliant pebbles?” Dr Thornton asked.
“That was one of the SDI programs, right?” Madison replied.
“Yes. The SDI program went through a bunch of different ideas, all of them generally focused on the idea of shooting down Soviet missiles shortly after launch,” he explained. “Smart rocks was earlier, which was built around the idea of putting some really big satellites up with lots of sensors and missiles on them. But there were logistical problems with that idea, so they switched to brilliant pebbles, where we’d basically just have missiles in orbit that could guide themselves.”
“That’s a weird idea,” Madison said. “So just a bunch of missiles floating around out there? And how would they know when to fire their engines and where to go?”
“Aha! That’s they trick isn’t it? Because if you have all that being controlled centrally, then in theory the Soviets would just need to knock out central command and that’s that. That’s what they meant by ‘smart’ and ‘brilliant.’ These missiles would decide all on their own.”
“Yikes,” she said.
“It gets worse,” he said. “They figured out pretty quick that hitting a missile with another missile is a damn hard thing to do. Especially since they want to get the ICBMs just as they are taking off, low in the atmosphere. You’ve got wind and weather to deal with, plus visibility challenges.”
“So what did they do about that?”
“They went nuclear. You don’t need a direct hit when you blow up a nuclear weapon. Even a small one has a pretty big impact radius. Tactical nukes, they used to call them,” he explained.
“So wait, there were nuclear missiles in orbit over Russia?”
“Not just Russia. I don’t know how familiar you are with space science, but to have a satellite in geo-synchronous orbit, it needs to be about thirty-six kilometers up. That’s too far.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not following.”
The old man pursed his lips. “Well basically, in order to have these brilliant pebbles low enough that they’d have a chance to reach their target, they need to be in the kind of orbit that goes all over the place. If you went outside right now and knew what to look for, you could find probably a half dozen of those pebbles over the top of us right now.”
Madison looked up from her notebook. “Right now?”
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“They’re still up there?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” he repeated.
Madison glanced over at Lucas who grimaced. “Wow. Okay. I’m still not seeing the connection with NASA, though,” she said.
“Well that’s where the story gets interesting. These pebbles, as they called them, had a sensor array that would look down at the earth and watch for the telltale signs of a launch. There were some safety measures built in, of course. But if they were armed and they saw the right kind of a flash, the idea was they would guide themselves down to that neighborhood and blow up.”
“Okay?” Madison said.
“But see, the Russians and the Chinese knew what we were up to. You can’t just launch thousands of satellites and not have those guys notice. And those countries had some resources. So they both built some very large ground-based lasers. And when they’d detect one of these pebbles flying over, they’d literally shoot its eyes out.”
“Oh my God,” Madison said.
“Took them a couple years, but eventually they’d blinded every damn one of our pebbles.”
“Holy shit,” Lucas said from the corner.
The old man glanced over at him and smiled, then turned back to Madison. “Now, I don’t know if you know this, but the guy running SDIO—the agency that did Star Wars—he was an old NASA man himself.”
“I knew that!” Madison said brightly.
“I thought you might. So he calls me up one day and says, ‘Al, we got a problem.’”
“Oh boy,” Madison said.
“Oh boy is right. Congress had already killed the SDI by then, and they’ve got all this nuclear space junk up in orbit. He was wondering, since NASA does NEO tracking—”
“Near Earth Object?” Madison interrupted.
“Right. Damn, you’re a smart girl.” He turned to Lucas, “You’ve got yourself a smart one, here. Better watch out.”
“Oh, I know,” Lucas replied. “Believe me.”
“Yeah,” Dr. Thornton continued, “so we’ve got our NEO tracking program, and he asked whether we could keep an eye on the pebbles. And if one of them starts to lose altitude or is threatening to cause trouble in some way, we can trigger it’s self-destruct.”
“Got it,” Madison said. “So that’s what your budget line-item was for? Keeping track of the pebbles?”
“Exactly,” he said.
Madison stood up and walked to the bedside. She shook the old man’s hand. “Thank you so much for speaking with me. This has been fascinating.”
“You come back any time you want,” he said. “And bring more cookies.”
Madison smiled. “I will. G-rated ones next time.”